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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

The Mind-Body

How to Fight Stress and Ward Off Illness

What you Can Do to Protect Yourself

By Celia Vimont

Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.

Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
Photo courtesy of NIH/NIHM

Today scientists are looking at how stress makes people ill, and what can be done to help prevent illness caused by stress.

"This new science is forcing the medical community to take more seriously the popular notions of the mind-body connection," says Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. In response to stressful events, our bodies pump out hormones. These hormones aren't necessarily harmful and can be very useful, says Dr. Sternberg, author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. "The problem is when the stress response goes on for too long," she says. "That's when you get sick. Hormones weaken the immune system's ability to fight disease."

Dangers of Chronic Stress

Unhealthy levels of stress come in many guises. You may have to take care of a chronically ill person—and that's stressful. Or you may be stressed from being in constant pain. Work related issues, marriage or family problems, and financial difficulties can generate chronic stress. Severe, chronic stress can damage our bodies in many ways.

"Chronic stress has been shown to prolong wound healing, decrease response to vaccines, and increase the frequency and severity of upper respiratory infections," Dr. Sternberg says.

Stress also can aggravate existing health problems. It can worsen angina, disturb heart rhythm, raise blood pressure, and lead to stroke. It can spark asthma and may affect the digestive system, making ulcers, acid reflux, or irritable bowel problems worse. Stress can play havoc with your nerves and muscles, causing backaches, tension headaches, or migraines.

Take Yourself "Offline"

"If you feel stressed all the time, you need to take yourself 'offline,'" Dr. Sternberg urges. "We reboot our computers when they are overworked, but we don't seem to do it with our bodies."

"If you're exhausted from constantly working on deadline or caregiving, take a vacation—they're not luxuries, they're physical necessities. Find a place of peace where you can stop, look, and listen." If vacations are out of the question, Dr. Sternberg suggests meditation to rest body and mind. "Evidence shows that meditation bolsters immune function by reducing stress hormones that dampen immune cells' ability to fight infection," she says.

Exercise is a great way to improve your mood, and it changes the body's stress response, she says. If starting an exercise program seems too hard, then go slowly, she advises. "A few minutes are better than no minutes—you can gradually increase how much you exercise every day. You don't need to go jogging—walking has significant health benefits."

Yoga helps many people relax, while others find peace of mind through prayer, music, reading, or art. "We need to find our place of peace and try to go there every day," she says.

Getting enough sleep is very important for protection, Dr. Sternberg emphasizes. "Lack of sleep can change moods, cause irritability, weight gain, inability to perform, and poor memory."

When to Seek Professional Help

If the stress is bad enough that you can't fix it on your own, Dr. Sternberg recommends seeking professional help. In some people, what may seem like ongoing stress is actually depression.

Possible signs of depression include:

  • Often waking up in the middle of the night with feelings of anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loss of weight and appetite
  • Not wanting to be around other people
  • Constant irritability

"Depression is an imbalance of hormones and nerve chemicals—it's a biological illness," Dr. Sternberg says. "And highly treatable."

Winter 2008 Issue: Volume 3 Number 1 Pages 5 - 6